Why is Big Brother Such a Moron?

Tuesday Apr 16th 2013 by Mike Elgan
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Despite the massive data collected about us online, the Web giants appear to know quite little about us. Is Big Data a myth?

People think that Silicon Valley giants like Google and Facebook harvest every scrap of information about us they can, enabling them to zero in on exactly who, what and where we are. They do this, we're told, to serve up highly targeted contextual advertising, to pitch products we want before we even know we want them.

Everybody is worried about what companies know about us. It's an invasion of privacy, we're told. Big Data voodoo is so strong they know more about us that we know about ourselves, pundits say.

So why do they seem to know nothing?

My Facebook News Feed this morning confronted me with a huge ad for a big-screen Samsung TV. In Spanish. Is this the total information awareness that Big Brother Facebook is capable of?

In five years of using Facebook, I have never typed Spanish words on Facebook. Yet Facebook has concluded that I speak Spanish.

Yes, I was in Spain recently. But now I'm in Morocco, where hardly anyone speaks Spanish.

Second, half the posts I make are about my digital nomad lifestyle, about how I travel full time and have done so since last summer. Checking my log-in locations, Facebook could have concluded this on their own. People who travel full time and who don't have living rooms generally don't buy big-screen TVs.

In short, Facebook is supposed to know everything about me, but they're ads tell me they know nothing.

Twenty years ago, advertisers worked hard to gather the trifecta of contextual advertising data: age, gender and zip code. From that limited data, they could target ads and mail catalogs.

Today, a company like Facebook should know all three of those things and a hundred more. Yet ads on Facebook reveal that they're generically targeting a middle-aged male. They're not able or willing to use what they should know. They don't even seem to know my zip code or where I am at any given moment.

Go check on your own Facebook account: Look at the big ads on your News Feed and the little ads off to the right. Are those results tailored just for you?

Part of the problem could be that I don't use Facebook heavily.

But I post like a maniac on Google+, pouring my guts out and chronicling every detail of my existence in public, private and everything in between. Maybe Google knows all about me.

A new Forrester report says Google should know more, will dominate this business and that Facebook will fail to compete. The reason, they say, is that Google does and will have a lot more data, a lot better day and a lot more skill with crunching that data into meaning.

I don't doubt that analysis, but today Google's ability to use what it knows isn't great. While there's zero advertising on Google+ itself, we should assume they harvest data there to serve up ads on Search, Gmail and YouTube.

Yet I've never been impressed by the relevance of Google advertising. The only exception is that sometimes I'll visit a wristwatch site or something, and for a while I see a lot of wristwatch ads. Is that an example of Big Brother knowing my most intimate preferences?

Gmail advertising seems more relevant sometimes, because they target against the actual conversation you're reading. Yet Google doesn't seem to apply what they know about me to fighting spam.

I've been using Gmail for about eight years. Ever since Google has offered a "Report Spam" button, I had used that button for every single email I have received in the Russian, Chinese and Portuguese languages. And yet to this day Gmail continues to deliver obvious spam in these languages.

I'm a journalist, not a Big Data programmer. But this doesn't seem to me like a hard problem to solve. How long will it take Google to learn that I don't speak Russian and that any email delivered in Russian is unwanted?

We keep being told (and I've been describing it for five years) about the coming world of contextual mobile advertising. You've heard the scenarios a hundred times: You're walking down the street, your phone beeps, and an alert tells you you're just around the corner from a great deal on something you personally care about.

Has this ever happened to you? Me, neither.

I download and run every supposedly invasive, data-harvesting Big Brother app I can find, from Siri to Grokr to EasilyDo to Google Now and I have yet to receive a single result that was astonishingly relevant, although Google Now is getting there. More to the point, I have yet to be served an ad that treated me as anything but an age, gender and zip code, and far too often not even that.

Why won't they invade my privacy already and show me some relevant ads?

What Are They Waiting For?

Where's my jet pack? Where's my nuclear-powered flying car? Where's my domed city of the future?

I'm beginning to think that context-aware advertising is too hard for companies to actually do, and may end up in the ash-heap of future technologies that never happen.

Facebook's future depends on serving up highly relevant ads, yet they can't even divine the fact that I speak English from the gigabyte of English words I have typed into Facebook over the years. How are they going to match my personal preferences to specific restaurants, clothing stores and more? And how will I understand their recommendation when they post it in Swahili?

I'm not afraid that Apple, Google and Facebook will know everything about me. I'm afraid they'll never know anything about me.

Why the Fears Are Misdirected

Concerns over data harvesting are legitimate. We need to keep our personal information from being used against us by hackers, criminals and unconstitutional law enforcement.

But most of the public thinking in the blogs and opinion columns misses the mark. The whole "they-know-everything-about-me" fear doesn't pass the test of reason or evidence.

I guess people imagine a small group of all-seeing, all-powerful conspiracy types watching and listening and monitoring, like a Black Ops control center in Bourne Identity: "I want everyone on all high alert, people. John Smith just bought a sandwich! Call Interpol! Now, people!"

In reality, your data is merely crunched in algorithms, along with a billion points of data per second from millions of other people, to be processed for the purposes of sending back ads or some other result. No human is watching. No human could possible keep up with it all.

It's a tree-in-the-forest philosophical question. If no human ever consciously sees your data, are you being "monitored"?

It's also true that without human reason on the other end of the data crunching, mobile data is absurdly easy to foil through misinformation. If you don't want any remote servers to know certain things about you, there are hundreds of tools available to search and function online but beyond the detection of anyone. If you want remote servers to be confused and ignorant, just send bad data. Search for things you don't care about. Interact with people you don't know. Loan your phone to a friend for the day -- the servers will think you're in all kinds of places you never went.

The more scammers, crackers, hackers, law enforcement, spy agencies, foreign industrial espionage hackers and others have in the way of data to harvest, the more they will rely on those methods to the exclusion of other methods. Any vaguely motivated person could easy mislead the data harvesters with bad or missing data.

Meanwhile, the techno-panic crowd seems genuinely fearful that they'll get personally relevant advertising.

Why?

Advertising is as inevitable as death and taxes. But only the spam version of advertising is as bad.

Spam is by definition unwanted, irrelevant advertising. Yet the data harvesting systems Silicon Valley is building promise a world where the advertising is so relevant that it's welcome, that it solve problems for us and shows us exactly what we really want when we want it. It's a world in which advertising pays for free services online that we really want to use, and that advertising is also something we really want.

So while we should all demand transparency from data harvesters, and safeguards against abuse, I'm looking forward to the promised world in which my personal data is harvested for advertising.

My only question is: What are they waiting for?

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